Sounding Off

Like most people, I’ve seen a lot in my life… too much actually.  I’ve seen shocking things.  I’ve seen scary things.  I’ve had images burned into my brain I will never forget, no matter how hard I try.  While things I see have given me nightmares, it’s my sense of hearing that seems to dig deeper into my brain.  Certain sounds instantly generate that primitive fear “fight/flight” response.  For example, I’ll hear a certain sound at work and I’ll find myself cringing before I’m actually aware I’ve heard it.


We use instant messaging at work.  My message window may stay closed for days, but as soon as I need to be totally focused on something, I hear this sound and my mouse control is taken away from what I’m doing.  IM is considered a “mission critical” application though most of my messages seem to be either “R U There?” or end with someone asking me to call them on the phone.


We had Nextel phones at my previous job.  While we were all supposed to be using the Push-To-Talk feature, the only person who did was my boss.  I’d hear the PTT sound followed by his deep grumble courtesy of half a century of cigarette smoking.

“Br- B- Fr- Ma- Ha-”   Our main office was in a skyscraper in the middle of the Loop.  We didn’t have the highest cell signal there.  I’d send back I couldn’t understand him and a moment later my phone would ring.

“Br- B- Fr- Ma- Ha-”   It never occurred to my boss if Push-To-Talk didn’t work, calling me directly from the same cell phone wouldn’t work either.  This was doubly annoying because I knew he was sitting in his office with a perfectly functioning landline on his desk right next to where his feet were propped up.


When I started working for the phone company, my PC was a 386 running at 12 megahertz.  This was slow even then.  My hard drive was so small; I couldn’t have Word and Excel on it at the same time.  Every few days I had to uninstall one and install the other from a tall stack of floppy disks.  Needless to say, this didn’t make my computer very stable.  Pretty much anything I did would cause it to emit the Windows patented “Ding!” sound to tell me something was wrong.  While it drove me crazy, it actually drove one of my “pod mates” crazier.  After listening to my system through the fabric walls of my cubicle for months and months, he graciously volunteered to give me his new Pentium machine.  The IT department moved with uncharacteristic swiftness; I actually got to use the new computer a few times before I was downsized.


We had a speaker mounted to the wall in the drive thru at Burger King.  The alarm would go off any time a car pulled up to the menu.  It was loud enough to be heard as far as the stalls in the men’s room and it wouldn’t stop until you ran all the way back to the window to answer.  The speaker system was old when I started, but our franchise owner was cheap.  We kept it until it died.  The good news was we got modern headsets to wear.  The bad news was the sound was the same and so was the volume.

Our radio station broadcast in stereo, but I thought of it as surround sound.  Everywhere you went in the station, sound would follow.  It poured from the speakers in the hallways.  It was emitted from small monitors built into the mixing boards.  I heard it in my headphones and my co-workers’ headphones (they all have tinnitus now).  Some of the stabs would make me jump.  Some of the stings would make me wince.  Some of the songs we played made me nauseous.  However, there was one sound that made me go cold and drop my stomach into my shoes.  That one sound above all, one sound worse than the rest.  That one sound that set me off more than any other: the sound of total silence.


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